Clarke retreats from Ashes legacy
Australia's captain Michael Clarke is in retreat. If not in retreat from England, then certainly from history.
On the eve of the first Test at Trent Bridge, Clarke was adamant that the next 10 Ashes matches would not define him as a player or a captain, and that they were no more important than any Test against any other nation. As globalised thinking, it could perhaps be construed as refreshing. But on the day before going into battle against an accomplished and experienced England side, it almost sounded as though Clarke did not want to stake too much on a series he may very well lose.
"I've read it will make or break my reputation as a captain. Personally, I don't feel like that," Clarke said. "Every Test match I play in, every time I walk out to bat I try and make a hundred, whether it's against Bangladesh, India, South Africa or England. That doesn't change my mindset. Because of the history and tradition of what comes with Ashes cricket, which is fantastic, it obviously builds this series up and that's great for the game, but as a player my mindset will be no different than it was last summer. Every time I captain Australia I want us to win.
"I understand there's so much expectation that comes with an Ashes tour, and that's from fans back at home, this is everything to an Australian fan, the biggest series you play as a cricketer. But as a player, that expectation I have on myself every single day, I'm not more disappointed if we lose the first Test against England than if we lose the first Test against South Africa or India and the excitement when we win will be no different. There's no more pressure from within."
By contrast, England's captain Alastair Cook was comfortable enough in himself and his team to accept the extra weight that comes with an Ashes bout, particularly one to be played over an extraordinary two legs, spanning 10 cricket grounds, 50 playing days and two continents. Cook's England are warm favourites, but he said the additional expectation from the rest of the nation and the world was something the best players learned to live with and ultimately thrive on.
"They are the biggest Test matches we can play, as an Englishman or an Australian," Cook said. "The history and the tradition and the rivalry, how much the whole country gets behind both sides whether you're in England or Australia. I think it can define a career. It's not the be all and end all, but I've had some very fond memories in Ashes series of winning it and hope to add a few more over my career.
"I think the external pressure and the hype is that there is more interest in the country in general. For players who are aware of that and can deal with that, clearly the cricket stays the same. It's the same 22 yards, the same red ball, but it does heighten. That's where you want to test yourself, in increased pressure situations."
As much as Clarke did not wish to acknowledge it, Australian cricket's direction over the past two years has been aimed primarily at putting up the strongest possible bid to wrest the Ashes back from England. The Argus review that followed the 2010-11 defeat at home stressed the need to prioritise Test cricket, and the elaborate player fitness management regime overseen by the team performance manager Pat Howard was geared towards ensuring all first-choice players would be fit for the first day's play in Nottingham.
Lastly, the summary removal of Mickey Arthur two weeks ago to be replaced by Darren Lehmann was deemed imperative because Australia's next opponents were not Bangladesh, nor anyone else. The Cricket Australia chief executive James Sutherland, the chairman Wally Edwards, and Howard all agreed that the quest for the Ashes required decisive action.
So far it has worked. Lehmann's appointment has sent a rush of good feeling and relaxation through the touring party, and Clarke counselled his men to enjoy themselves. "The media and the public will build it and it's a fantastic series to be a part of, so instead of being scared of it, enjoy every single moment," Clarke said. "Love being out there and hearing the Barmy Army, seeing so many people in a packed house, love walking out at Lord's for the first time for the guys who haven't experienced that.
"You spend a lot of time together, it's always tough cricket, but the boys are in a fantastic place. They're excited about what lies ahead and we know we will walk out there and give our absolute best. We have prepared as well as we possibly can. Guys are excited about facing if the ball is swinging or reverse swinging or if Graeme Swann is spinning it. We have a chance to play against a very good England team, in their own backyard, we've got nothing to lose, we've got a great group of players with plenty of talent, let's get out there and enjoy every minute of it."
Just don't think it will define you.
Daniel Brettig is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo. He tweets here